Monday, April 23, 2012

DNA, RNA, and….XNA?

A UK team synthesized DNA-like and RNA-like chemicals with similar properties, though using never seen-before chemistry to act as the structure for the nucleobase genetic information. (In other words, traditional A's, G's, T's. and C's, but novel structures in place of the ribose or deoxyribose sugar scaffolding. Good scientific over views can be found here or here.)

The resulting molecules are referred to as XNA - xeno nucleic acids. The implications of XNAs are profound, and I'm not even counting the conclusion that it now seems that life need not be based on DNA or RNA. (I can't wait to see how the evolutionists and creationists spin this news.)

The UK team's research represents the dawn of a new research modality or at least a re-definition of the science of biochemistry. XNAs could be a new source of therapeutic compounds or a source of new biomaterials. XNAs could be a key component of quantum computing (it would seem that XNAs could represent organic memory storage).

My first thought, as I contemplate how to explain the significance of XNAs to a non-bio-geek, is to suggest a mainstream analogy: DNA & RNA are traditional operating systems that we have grown up with and almost mastered, like Linux or Windows. The development of XNA is like the establishment of a different but ubiquitous operating system like Java. Like Java, XNA could enable exciting new applications in a breadth of industries or operating systems.

I think XNAs will kickstart a wave of interest in chemistry and synthetic biology research, not just in traditional biochemistry groups, but probably as far afield as NASA (XNAs as an analog for extraterrestrial life?) and Dow Chemical (why synthesize a chemical when you can express it?)

A couple of questions to chew over as a result:

1) while XNAs represent a change in the basics of life's chemistry, is an improvement possible, or has evolutionary biology optimized our chemistry?

2) what does this mean for large synthetic biology ventures like Intrexon? Their existing IP likely just became less relevant (or valuable), but their core capabilities are now more relevant. (I'm probably getting ahead of things - the XNA technology is still a long way from commercialization.)

3) what groups will be the first to incorporate XNA in their grant proposals? Will it be drug discovery groups, who would consider XNA another lead class on the order of siRNA or aptamers or will it be chemical engineers?

4) what can be down to mitigate the inevitable new, larger, louder round of synthetic biology fear-mongering among bioethicists and bio-Luddites, as XNAs could possibly do very bad things - intentionally or unintentionally.

Of course, XNA was not the biggest scientific advance this week. That prize goes to the research team who discovered the cause of brain freeze. I wonder if the research was underwritten by Slupree Corp.

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